Given their timing, it was inevitable that there would be a clash between our annual ceremonies of national remembrance and the Occupy London protest. In the past few days many newspapers have begun to allude to this, casting the situation as one where protest and remembrance were mutually exclusive.
The Mail lead the charge on 24th October, invoking St Paul’s Cathedral as a symbol of the “nation’s Blitz spirit”. On the 25th October, the Express quoted Conservative MP Priti Patel saying that protestors should “think twice” due to the “significance of St Pauls as we head into the Remembrance service period”.
“TENTS STAND-OFF ON REMEMBRANCE DAY”, screamed the Star. The inference underlying all this is that the protestors are disrespectful as well as deluded. Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, put it more plainly: the protestors should “do the decent thing” and leave. This atmosphere has only been heightened by the language used in some comment, where the protest is described as a “siege”. You are invited to imagine the dome of St Paul’s standing defiant among dark clouds, as in Herbert Mason’s famous 1940 photograph.
It’s not surprising that an alleged threat to the Remembrance Day service could raise strong emotions, even though the protestors themselves have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of keeping the Cathedral closed. The idea of sacrifice – and of the commemoration of that sacrifice – is still a culturally potent force, as our nearly-annual debate over public figures’ poppy-wearing choices shows. We cannot, and perhaps should not, argue with the need for commemoration – remembering the thousands of lives snuffed out. Although St Pauls was, in some respects, an accidental choice of venue for Occupy London, interference with this is something the protestors need to bear in mind.
Yet is it really necessary to rank protest and remembrance in a hierarchy of priorities? Let’s remember, for a second, what the combatants of the UK and its empire achieved. After victory over fascism, those returning from the war or shaking off years of austerity and tragedy were determined to rebuild society. The desire for change, in fact, was so strong that Britain jettisoned its wartime leader, electing Attlee and a Labour government by a landslide.
Their reward and lasting monument was a society free of want, as Beveridge identified: “the Plan for Social Security […] takes abolition of want after this war as its aim”. Whereas the veterans of World War I found themselves in a world where Lloyd George’s promises of a “land fit for heroes to live in” came to have a hollow ring, those returning from World War II could look forward to something more lasting, guaranteed by a broad agreement across all political parties. Beveridge would lead to a system of state-directed support that would finally end the system that had overshadowed the lives of their fathers and grandfathers: dependence on the charity of rich men and the begrudging support of private employers. It’s something you can look on with as much pride as is implied in wearing a poppy.
While the aims of Occupy London might seem confused, there is a strong and consistent narrative of anger at the massive socialisation of private debt. There is a deep fear of the effects of cutbacks to the National Health Service and worse – the erosion of the fundamental principles on which it is founded. The NHS was the cornerstone of the new state built after World War II: it is a better commemoration of the sacrifice of the working class than crumbling memorials or the rhetoric of mere patriotism. It is worth protesting for, as an increasingly large number of voters may be coming to realise.
Protest, then, need not be disrespectful, if the world that previous generations fought to defend and then to reshape is a part of the protest’s aims. It is unfair for sections of the media to present Occupy London as diametrically opposed to a ‘public’ right to the space. Perhaps both the protestors and the poppies can coexist.